Snowy owls will soon arrive

Hard to believe but within two months, the Snowy owls will return to Eastern Ontario and Quebec. The summer months once again have come and gone and Quebec’s national bird will be leaving the arctic tundra soon to make their long voyage to our province. Of course, their numbers will depend on the availability of their preferred prey, the lemming. If it’s a cycle year and the rodents are plentiful, the majority of owls will stay put and continue to hunt at home. If, however, the lemming population is low, then the birds will make their way back to their favorite hunting grounds by the beginning of November. They have been known to return to the same place year after year if the bounty is plentiful. I normally visit four places to find these birds, Casselman Ontario, Saint-Clet (west of Montreal), Trudeau airport in Dorval and finally Saint-Hubert airport. These locations pretty much guarantee you’ll see one during the winter months. The reason these particular places are hotspots is because their terrains are similar to their territories in the far north. Large, open and flat like the arctic tundra.
My first picture of a Snowy owl was in Saint-Clet. I was living in Saint-Lazare at the time so it was literally ten minutes from my home. “The Lanes of Saint-Clet are well known to birders and nature photographers. They are farmer’s fields connected by a series of roads running roughly five to seven
miles in total. Here you will find them arriving in November, even before there’s snow on the ground. Check lampposts, hydro poles, tops of barns, on the fences in fields and even on the ground usually out in the pastures. They love the terrain and with all the spillage at the bottom of the grain silos, there’s always rats and mice to gorge on. Casselman Ontario is another well know hotspot. About an hour’s drive from the Quebec border past Rigaud, Snowy’s have been coming to this place for decades. Some of my best shots have been taken here, using a 300mm lens. As these birds seem accustomed to humans, you can get fairly close without spooking them. A 400mm lens and up pretty much guarantees you some phenomenal opportunities. A word of caution, always secure permission from the landowner should you venture off the road and onto private property. I’ve witnessed some pretty tense situations between birders/photographers and landowners, with one in particular resulting in a scuffle and the arrival of the OPP. At Trudeau international airport you can drive along the fenced border in Dorval and sometimes see one resting on the fence or on the ground close to snow mounds or even on airport signal lights. Finally, Saint-Hubert airport which is closest to us here in the Townships. I normally drive along the roads running bordering the airstrip and have spotted them on fenceposts and sitting in the field atop a mound of snow. They prefer spots that give them a clear view of the open terrain which facilitates their hunting. Two winters ago, I went on a day trip with Ben Mcauley and we were lucky enough to spot one out in the field on a large mound of snow most likely made by the airports snow tractors. As it was too far away even with my 400mm, we continued along the road hoping it would come in closer if there was nobody around to bother it. Twenty minutes later we returned, exited the car and looked toward the mound out in the field. It had moved on, I looked over Ben’s shoulder and it was literally twenty feet away sitting on the fencepost. Excitedly, we both snapped a bunch of photos. This was especially special for Ben as it was his first time seeing a snowy owl in the wild. These are special times you never forget as a wildlife photographer!
Normally by mid-November I start my day trips looking for these birds. The advantage if there is no snow on the ground is how easy it is to spot them. They are masters of camouflage, so not having the white snow as a backdrop makes them easy to spot. Check all the same places as they are creatures of habit, the accompanying photo in this week’s article is a Snowy I spotted on a dirt mound in Saint-Clet years ago. It was an early arrival and he was easy to find, his pure white coat nestled on a brown dirt mound. That was a good year as many more descended on the lanes of Saint-Clet that November and the following month. So, for all you owl enthusiasts looking to see and possibly photograph this magnificent bird, get ready because they’re coming soon!

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